I will hold my hand up straightaway: the recorder is not one
of my favourite instruments. I guess that this antipathy goes
back to my primary school days when I was struggling to play
‘Greensleeves’ on this instrument. I failed. The sounds generated
were horrendous. I then took up the piano and had a considerably
better - but by no means great - success. Furthermore I instinctively
feel that most pieces written for the recorder could be played
just as well - or even more effectively - on the flute or oboe.
Having shriven my soul on that issue, I have to state that the
present CD is excellent. If I imagined that I love the sound
of the recorder, I can believe that this is one of the best
releases for that instrument I have heard. From the excellence
of the playing through to the imaginative and rare repertoire
it impresses me. I am not sure, but I would fancy that most
of these works are receiving their first recordings. However,
bear in mind the disc was recorded in 1993 – so some of these
tracks may have appeared elsewhere. I do not know.
The programme opens with Norman Fulton’s beautiful Scottish
Suite. There are five movements to this work, most of which
takes on a largely traditional dance-suite form – ‘Prelude’,
‘Air’, ‘Musette’, ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Reel’. The jaunty ‘Prelude’
gets the music going with a swagger. The wistful ‘Air’ suggests
some ‘lonely glen on a misty morning’. The ‘Musette’ is a little
more ‘international’ in its mood: complex and technically difficult.
The exception to dance movements is the ‘Nocturne’: this is
the heart of the work. It is a deeply-felt piece that moves
away from any notion of ‘tartanry’ into an almost atonal mood.
The liner-notes allude to the ‘solitary loneliness of the Scottish
highlands and islands’: it is a perfect allusion. Conversely,
the spirit of Burns and Scott is present in the final ‘Reel’
– this a rollicking piece that sits somewhere between sailors
on ships and the ceilidh. Finally, more investigation needs
to be done into the life and works of Norman Fulton. He appears
to have been largely ignored by performers and writers.
I find Edmund Rubbra’s Meditazione Sopra Coeurs Désolés
a little too dry and dusty. However, I imagine that many folk
will enjoy this timeless tune with its nod to the fifteenth
century. The piece is a set of well constructed variations.
The principal work is the Sonata Op.121 by York Bowen. It was
composed in 1946 and was given its premiere two years later
by Arnold Dolmetsch. This epitomises my view that most works
for the recorder would be better for the flute. On the one hand,
this highly charged work has a demanding romantic piano part.
Against this is counter-pointed the ‘old-world’ sound of the
recorder. To me it does not quite work. However, there is no
doubt that Bowen was a master of his craft and has written effectively
for both instruments: it is their combination and interaction
that concerns me. Yet this is clearly an important part of the
recorder repertoire and undoubtedly earns it place in this recital.
Contrariwise, the Sonatina by Lennox Berkeley is a perfect balance
between recorder and piano. This is a neo-classical - or is
it neo-baroque? - work that has little in the way ‘romance’.
The liner-notes point out that Berkeley’s style owed little
to the English pastoral tradition. This Sonatina makes use of
angular melodies, acerbic harmonies and restless figurations
for both recorder and piano. This ‘Spartan’ effect is seen at
its most depressing in the middle ‘adagio’. There is a little
easing of the tension in the concluding ‘allegro moderato’.
In fact, I detected a nod towards a hornpipe! Possibly the most
satisfactory work on this disc, even if it is not immediately
approachable or user-friendly. It is a miniature masterpiece.
Three Matisse Sketches by Edward Gregson is a response
to three paintings by the French master –‘Pastoral’, ‘Luxe,
Calme et Volupté’ and ‘The Dance’. The sound-world of these
numbers could be described as impressionist rather than descriptive
however; it is not necessary to see the paintings in order to
enjoy the music. The stylistic balance is good with nods to
Debussy. This is by far the most ‘modern’ piece on this CD.
Stephen Dodgson’s Shine and Shade (the title track)
was written for the recorderist Richard Harvey in 1976. The
mood of this piece for some reason reminded me of Beethoven’s
‘Happy-Sad’ bagatelle (WoO54). However, Dodgson makes subtle
use of a wide palette of musical devices, such as blues, jazz
and ‘retro’ classicism. This lovely work combines reflection
with humour. It’s a long, complex work that is entertaining
It is nice to see a CD featuring the work of Donald Swann. More
often than not, he is considered in the same breath as his writing
partner Michael Flanders. They are recalled for their humorous
songs such as ‘The Hippopotamus’, ‘The Gasman Cometh’ and ‘Have
some Madeira, M’dear’. However, Swann always regarded himself
as ‘striving for recognition’ as a classical composer. The present
Rhapsody from Within was written for Arnold Dolmetsch
and the harpsichordist Joseph Saxby to celebrate fifty years
of their partnership. The liner-notes omit to state that the
work was given its first performance at the Wigmore Hall on
2 April 1982 by the dedicatees.
The present recording successfully uses the piano in lieu of
the harpsichord. I agree with the anonymous reviewer in the
Jun 1982 edition of Recorder & Music that this
work is ideally suited to this scoring.
Rhapsody from Within is in three well-balanced movements
– Part one: Molto movimento, Part two: Rhapsodico and Part three:
Ritmico. Do not try to unpack all the musical nods and winks.
I guess that Francis Poulenc is the name that springs to mind
as a possible stylistic model. However, Saint-Säens, Mendelssohn
and Sullivan are never far away. Yet, this is not a pastiche
or a parody. Donald Swann has composed a very attractive work
that is well written, ideal for the present musical combination
and has instant appeal. I think that this recording will ensure
that it is firmly established in the recorder player’s repertoire.
I believe it is the only one currently available. This is my
favourite work on this CD.
I noted my general lack of enthusiasm for the recorder at the
start of this review. In spite of this fussy little prejudice
of mine, I have to reinforce my contrary opinion that this is
actually a stunning disc. The playing is first class from both
performers. The sound quality is excellent and the liner-notes
are extremely helpful, if not comprehensive. Composer dates
would have been helpful. Additionally, I would have enjoyed
reading Donald Swann’s own programme note for Rhapsody from
Within - I may post it on my blog
later. However, the most important aspect of this CD from Red
Priest - too much Sandeman’s
Port? - is the wide-ranging repertoire. It is an interesting
and fundamentally well-balanced programme that makes an ideal
recital. It was a pleasure and an honour to review this disc.